Posted On May 6, 2020

Progressive Sanctification: A Divine Co-Op Part 3

by | May 6, 2020 | The Gospel and the Christian Life, Featured

Perhaps one of Luther’s most famous phrases gives insight into the Reformed view of sanctification.[i] The Latin phrase speaks to the issue of not perfectly practicing what God has declared us to be in position; it was simul justus et peccator. That little phrase simply means “at the same time, just (or righteous) and sinner.” God does not eradicate all sin in the life of a believer, but He does declare the repentant sinner righteous. Though still a sinner, he is declared by the Judge of Heaven righteous. Through faith in Christ, the sinner is robed by God in Christ’s righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). The righteousness of the sinless One is transferred to the guilty. This is the righteousness that comes by faith. As a legal declaration by God, this is what is called forensic (related to the idea of acquittal).[ii]

Many go to one extreme or another. There is typically either an overemphasis on law, leaning towards legalism, or an overemphasis on liberty, leading to license. We should, however, pursue a biblical balance that recognizes both aspects of law and grace working together while being informed that the Christian life will always involve struggle and conflict with sin. The way may at times, though, get easier as we learn the biblical process of change and as we learn to mortify sin and put it to death. That does not mean sin is done away with. The enemy within, though mortally wounded as a defeated foe and put to death in principle (Rom 6:6), still needs to be regularly and aggressively put to death in daily practice (Gal 6:24) and laid aside (Eph 4:22).

Never think for a minute that the war against sin is over in this life. There isn’t even a cease-fire. Many generals have been surprised because they were careless after a victory. Countless believers have been ambushed on the heels of a giant step forward in faith. David, for example, lived a long life of devotion and duty to God, and saw mercy on mercy from God’s hands; then sin tip-toed up behind him in the dark and stabbed him in the back.

If you violently war against your flesh, you’ll win ground. It will grow weak, and you’ll grow in grace into the image of Christ. Still, the work has to be endless as long as we’re in this world. If you cut the flesh any slack, you’ll watch it regroup and revive. You may even end up worse off than you were before (compare Lk 11:24-26).[iii]

This familiar struggle that the Christian experiences are written of by Paul in Romans 7[iv] and addressed by the Princeton and Westminster theologian, John Murray:

If there is still sin to any degree by one who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, then there is tension, yes, contradiction, within the heart of that person. Indeed, the more sanctified the person is, the more conformed he is to the image of his Savior, the more he must recoil against every lack of conformity to the holiness of God. The deeper his apprehension of the majesty of God, the greater the intensity of his love to God, the more persistent his yearning for the attainment of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, the more conscious will he be of the gravity of the sin which remains and the more poignant will be his detestation of it. The more closely he comes to the holiest of all, the more he apprehends the sinfulness that is his, and he must cry out, “O wretched man that I am” (Rom 7:24)… Truly biblical sanctification has not affinity with the self-complacency, which ignores or fails to take into account the sinfulness of every lack of conformity to the image of him who was holy, harmless, and undefiled. “Ye shall be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). There must be a constant and increasing appreciation that though sin still remains, it does not have the mastery. There is a total difference between surviving sin and reigning sin, the regenerate in conflict with sin, and the unregenerate complacent in sin. It is one thing for sin to live in us: it is another for us to live in sin. It is one thing for the enemy to occupy the capital; it is another for his defeated hosts to harass the garrisons of the kingdom. It is of paramount concern for the Christian and the interests of his sanctification that he should know that sin does not have the dominion over him, that the forces of redeeming, regenerative, and sanctifying grace have been brought to bear upon him in that which is central in his moral and spiritual being, that he is the habitation of God through the Spirit, and that Christ has been formed in him the hope of glory.[v]

Christian, you are a contradiction. Though God has justified and declared you righteous, you still commit sins. That, beloved, is the constant contradiction that all the saints live until they are glorified. How about you? Are you killing sin? As John Owen was noted as saying, “you must be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”

Puritan J.C. Ryle gives a good summary of this issue of progressive sanctification in stating:

He that is born again and made a new creature receives a new nature and a new principle, and always lives a new life… In a word, where there is no sanctification there is no regeneration, and where there is no holy life there is no new birth.[vi]

He gives a specific portrait of what traits are visibly demonstrated in the life that is being sanctified as the believer exerts himself in submission to the Spirit of God. The first half is given by negation and the second half is given in the affirmative:

It is not talk about religion, religious feelings, outward formalism and external devoutness, retirement from our place in life, occasional performance of right actions; but it is habitual respect to God’s law, and habitual effort to live in obedience to it as a rule of life, an habitual endeavor [sic] to do Christ’s will, an habitual desire to live up the standard which St. Paul sets before the churches in his writings, habitual attention to the active graces which our Lord so beautifully exemplified, and habitual attention to the passive graces of Christianity. “Such are the visible marks of a sanctified man. I do not say that they are to be seen equally in all God’s people. I freely admit that in the best they are not fully and perfectly exhibited. But I do say confidently that the things of which I have been speaking are the spiritual marks of sanctification, and that those who know nothing of them may well doubt whether they have any grace at all. Whatever others may please to say, I will never shrink from saying that genuine sanctification is a thing that can be seen, and that the marks I have endeavored [sic] to sketch out are more or less the marks of a sanctified man.”[vii]

In this pursuit of progressive sanctification, I trust you are engaged in the battle. There is no let-up or pause button in the fight against the remaining corruption in our hearts. There should be a sobriety that marks the life of a Christian—not a cavalier attitude but one of perpetual discontent until we are complete in Christ (Col 1:28). Yes, there is wondrous joy in the Lord and peace with Him, but there is simultaneously a constant discontent in our inadequate pursuit of Christ and His likeness. This “discontentedness until Christ is formed in us” was captured well by Warfield in his article, “Miserable-Sinner Christianity”:

It belongs to the very essence of the type of Christianity propagated by the Reformation that the believer should feel himself continuously unworthy of the grace by which he lives. At the center of this type of Christianity lies the contrast of sin and grace; and about this center, everything else revolves. This is, in large part, the meaning of the emphasis put in this type of Christianity on justification by faith. It is its conviction that there is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all. This is not true of us only “when we believe.” It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing, nor does the nature of our relation to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in Christian behavior may be. It is always on His “blood and righteousness” alone that we can rest. There is never anything that we are or have or do that can take His place, or that can take a place along with Him. We are always unworthy, and all that we have or do of good is always of pure grace. Though blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ, we are still in ourselves just “miserable sinners”: “miserable sinners” saved by grace to be sure, but “miserable sinners” still, deserving in ourselves nothing but everlasting wrath. That is the attitude which the Reformers took, and that is the attitude which the Protestant world has learned from the Reformers to take, toward the relation of believers to Christ.[viii]

This sense of unworthiness, especially that which comes from continued sinfulness in fact and act, ought to motivate believers toward deep brokenness, confession, and repentance. And rather than engage in morbid introspection, learn to embrace in faith and obedience God’s abundant forgiveness through His own beloved Son. Pursue living life with a perpetually clean conscience with your relationship with God and others up-to-date, that there would not be any fertile soil for unbelief and reception of the lies hurled about by the Accuser of the brethren.

Though there is peace and joy in our hearts since we are united with Christ and experience all the blessings that flow out of our redemption, there is also a marked sadness that we are not more like Christ, more advanced in spiritual growth, and more consistently holy in our attitudes, speech, deeds, and desires.

If you have been justified and have begun the pursuit of God-given righteousness,[ix] then confidently wage war against remaining sin. Put off sin and put on righteousness, motivated by love for Christ, that has been enabled by His substitution, rooted in union with Him, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and appropriated by faith.

This progressive sanctification is a co-op where we work in His strength, exerting ourselves as if it all depends on us, knowing that it all depends on Him. This aspect of sanctification is as much a work of God as justification and positional sanctification, but it is also one in which He demands our maximum pursuit. Professor Berkhof clarified:

When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayerful and intelligent co-operation with the Spirit.[x]

So the next time your sinful desires invite you to rejoin your way of life before knowing Christ, when you used to sin without regret, reply with the Spirit’s aid, “I cannot participate, because I am dead… I died to sin, and I’m alive to Christ, seated with Him in heavenly places” (Eph 2).

Additional Reading:

  • Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, Donald Alexander.
  • A New Call to Holiness, J. Sidlow Baxter.
  • The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges.
  • The Mortification of Sin, John Owen.
  • Holiness, J.C. Ryle.
  • Five Views of Sanctification, Stanley Gundry, ed.
  • Sanctification: The Christian’s Pursuit of God-Given Holiness, Michael Riccardi.
  • A Biblical Theology of the Doctrines of Sovereign Grace, George Zemek.


[i] Chapter 13 of Westminster Confession of Faith states: “1. They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. 2. This sanctification is throughout in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life: there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. 3. In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome: and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”  The Reformation Study Bible (2015), 2440.

[ii] Justification cannot be understood in any other sense than forensic. The usage set forth is a judicial process (Job 9:3; Ps 143:2; Rom 3:28; 4:1-3; Acts 13:39). The law accuses the guilty, those deserving the sentence of punishment, yet are bestowed a verdict of absolution by the Judge. The gracious God declares them righteousness, not on their own account, but by the imputed righteousness of His own beloved Son. Further explanation can be found in Charles Hodges’s Systematic Theology, (Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 3:118-20.

[iii] Kris Lundgaard, The Enemy Within, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1998), 39-40.

[iv] For a brief study on how this must have been Paul as a mature believer and not an unbeliever, see my explanation in “Romans 7 and Paul’s Struggle.” In can be accessed at

[v] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 144-46.

[vi] John Charles Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, & Roots, (Charles Nolan Publishers, 2001), 21.

[vii] Ibid., 29-36.

[viii] Benjamin Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, (Baker Book House, 2000), vii:113-14.

[ix] The life of the Christian is one in which God recreates sinners via the new birth and faithfully renews them into the image of His Son (1 Pet 1:3ff.; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 1:6). The Holy Spirit is actively involved in setting them apart from sin and conforming them to Christ’s image (2 Cor 3:18; Gal 5:22-23).

[x] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 534.

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